The Facebook Primary

FiveThirtyEight has an amazing project called “The Facebook Primary” that maps out Facebook likes for each of the presidential contenders, through the whole country, at the zip-code level. The fact that site exists, and that Nate Silver gets to lead a crack team of  nerds through the minefield of politics, economics, culture and sports makes me grateful for ESPN (which ponied up the pile of money necessary to run the operation), and that kind of blows my mind. Some days it really does feel like a whole new world out there.

Not surprisingly, Bernie is crushing Hillary on the Facebook, although Ben Carson is somehow ahead of them both. Facebook is a big part of my life. I had a tough time with social interaction growing up, and discovered the world of online social life back when it consisted of IRC – “chat rooms” that existed on small, dial-up services, and were little more than lines of text exchanged by users. I never had the patience to be a real internet geek – I can’t write html, let alone actual code – but I have lots of experience with it. I can remember when Facebook arrived, and it seemed obvious that it was the thing. All of the social functions were there, in one, neat package. I don’t think Mark Zuckerberg was any kind of genius for creating it – he was just the guy who made the one that ended up being the standard. My view of Bill Gates is the same – he created something obvious, but because of the structure of copyright laws, he was (arbitrarily) transformed into a bazillionaire. Making a fortune is mostly a matter of blind luck. Which is why “fortune” is an appropriate name for wealth. But I digress…

Facebook is a (not) place where I spend a lot of time. It feeds my obsessive need for constant affirmation – all those little drops of dopamine, portioned out across the day – but it also helps me stay in touch with my far flung social network. It’s pretty hard to imagine my life without it, especially now that I live in a small town. I’ve had a lot of political discussions on the Facebook wall, and although some part of me often thinks “this is ridiculous – this is not a way to take politics seriously – I should really stop” its become the place where I feel engaged. Lots of my “Facebook friends” – a category that encompasses family members, friends of family members, acquaintances, former co-workers, as well as just regular friends, from all the different eras of my life – many of those folks do not especially care for politics. I’d say a broad majority. Of those that do post political content, many of them belie a superficial understanding of politics. And that’s okay – one of the lessons I’ve learned from paying attention to Facebook is that most people don’t spend much time thinking about politics, and don’t really want to. They’re busy living their lives, working jobs, raising children, and so on. Politics is complicated and demanding – and serious discussions of anything can be exhausting, let alone serious discussions of the policies that effect people’s everyday lives.

So I feel bad sometimes posting as much as I do about politics, and getting into interminable political discussions on my wall and the walls of others. It can be hard to gauge other people’s feelings, and how seriously they’re taking a discussion. I remember once my partner having to point out to me that a dear friend of mine, with whom I would sometimes disagree very sharply, very likely did not have the same level of commitment to the discussion as I did, on account of having other things going on in his life that were (rightly) taking priority over being informed about politics. And I do try to recognize when folks don’t have so much at stake in an argument. I care a lot about politics, and about how politics and the economy are discussed, but I also care a lot about what people think of me. I don’t want to be an asshole, even though I fail, sometimes disastrously, on that front. I do think that working at having good, engaging political discussion helps me become a better writer and communicator, which makes the effort worthwhile for me.

In the last couple months, as the Presidential primaries have heated up, and political thought has come out of the woodwork, I have engaged in numerous heavy going discussions with an often surprising mix of individuals. Friends from high school, friends from Chicago and San Francisco, all randomly joining the conversation, contributing their thoughts and feelings. I’ve been really heartened by these discussions. People write thoughtful reflections that demonstrate genuine care for the political process that I did not necessarily expect. To give an example, a fellow I know from my days as an erstwhile musician, who happens to be a really excellent guitar player, has written numerous well considered paragraphs, usually in support of Bernie Sanders, but nevertheless thoughtful and well considered. A guy I knew from theater classes in high school (he actually directed the one play I ever wrote and had produced) – we’ve kind of bonded over our mutual support of Hillary Clinton. Which has been really cool.

One of the things I’ve come to understand about myself politically from all these Facebook discussions is that I do have something of a unique perspective on politics. Growing up in Shaker Heights, where the student population in the public schools is roughly an even split between white and black, with a tiny proportion of other minorities, but where the socio-economic backgrounds were actually pretty diverse, I learned that racism was wrong so early and so well that I took it for granted. At the same time, I struggled with it, too, because the realities of race in Shaker were a frequent source of cognitive dissonance. We all knew racism was wrong, but that didn’t stop us from segregating ourselves in the lunch room or after school. And there were very real cultural differences that were both obvious and difficult to grasp. I recall talking with a black woman I worked with during my brief stint at Starbucks, who, it turned out, was in my graduating class (there were about 500 of us, so it was difficult to know everyone) – but she had grown up in basically the same neighborhood as me. I was 20 years old at the time, and the thought of having children seemed crazy to me, but she told me she was the only person she knew from school who was not already a parent at the time. Many of them had had children while still in high school. And I still remember being shocked at her frankness regarding the unwillingness of men to use condoms, while at the same time saying that abortion was simply not an option within her social circle. Most of the people I know from high school only recently started having children, for comparison.

Living in San Francisco, similarly, changed my outlook on society in a big way. Poverty became much more real to me. Growing up in the suburbs, you do not see homelessness, or know people who live and work “in the streets,” as it were. I’m already pretty far into this post, so I think I should leave this subject perhaps for another time – but I want to share this one experience, which did not occur in San Francisco at all. A philosophy professor of mine at Roosevelt, whom I respect a great deal and whose classes were among my very favorites, gave me a book on economics by Tyler Cowen. Now, Cowen is a smart guy and good writer (and an excellent blogger!) – but, as is the case with libertarians, I disagree with most of his views. I read it anyways, and I remember being really struck by how the world presented in the book seemed unrealistic, particularly when I thought about my experiences in San Francisco. Its all well and good to talk about how to be a rational utility maximizing individual when everyone has all their basic needs taken care of – which seems like a reasonable assumption in the upper-upper-middle class affluence of suburban Fairfax County, Virginia, where Cowen is a professor of economics at George Mason University. Homeless people in San Francisco, on the other hand, don’t know anything about that kind of life. Incentives are perverse almost by definition in their world. But that world is kept out of view in Fairfax County. Sort of like how the permanently crippled, brain damaged ex-football players aren’t seen at the Big Game on Sunday – just the exemplary physical specimens, all in perfect health and raring to go, and, of course, the roaring crowds.

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